GAZA (Reuters) - Hamas's exiled leader will step onto Palestinian land for the first time in 45 years on Friday for a "victory rally" in the Gaza Strip, displaying his newfound confidence after last month's conflict with Israel.
The Islamist group's leader, Khaled Meshaal, who has not visited the Palestinian Territories since leaving the West Bank at age 11, emerged emboldened from the eight day conflict which ended in a ceasefire he negotiated under Egypt's auspices.
"His visit is fruit of the victory achieved by the resistance over the occupation," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, hours before Meshaal was due to arrive via the Egyptian border into the tiny coastal enclave.
Hundreds of police and security forces were on duty at the Rafah crossing, some of them wearing black masks and riding in open trucks, with heavy machineguns attached to the rear.
Israel, which once tried and failed to assassinate Meshaal, rejects Hamas's assertion that it won the recent conflagration, that killed some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis. There was little mention of his visit in the Hebrew press.
He will stay for a little more than 48 hours in the Gaza Strip, which his Islamist group has ruled since a 2007 civil war against its secular rival Fatah that runs the nearby West Bank.
Meshaal, 56, left the West Bank with his family after the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel took control of the territory along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. He has never set foot in Gaza, home to some 1.7 million Palestinians.
Hamas plans an open-air rally on Saturday to celebrate last month's fight with Israel, and at the same time commemorate the 25th anniversary of the group's founding.
Israel says its air strikes not only killed Hamas's military chief, Ahmed Al-Jaabari, but also depleted its arms stockpile.
However, the fighting clearly boosted Hamas's standing in the region, winning it the support of Arab neighbours while leaving Fatah on the sidelines. Meshaal's role in negotiating the truce raised his own personal standing within the group, although he says he plans to stand down soon.
The Arab Spring revolts of the last two years have brought friends of Hamas to power across the region, above all Egypt's new President Mohamed Mursi, whose long-banned Muslim Brotherhood is spiritual mentor to Hamas.
Saturday's rally is not being held on the exact date of Hamas's founding, but on the 25th anniversary of the start of the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel.
That is being seen as an overture to other factions and a hint of a new willingness to seek reconciliation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls the West Bank.
"There is a new mood that allows us to achieve reconciliation," Meshaal told Reuters in an interview last Friday from Qatar, where he has set up home since leaving Syria earlier this year.
Hamas leaders have said in recent years the movement could live peacefully alongside Israel if it wins a state on all Palestinian land occupied by Israel in 1967, although the Islamist group's 1988 founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel and for recovering all of British mandate Palestine.
Various Hamas officials have at times indicated a willingness to negotiate a truce, possibly decades long, with Israel. But Hamas continues to say that it will not recognise the Jewish state officially, and it is viewed as a terror group by Israel and most Western governments.
Workers have festooned Gaza with the green flag of Hamas ahead of Meshaal's arrival via neighbouring Egypt. A large stage has been set up in the strip's main city, complete with a huge model of the homemade M75 rocket that was fired at both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in last month's conflict.
The first thing Meshaal will see when he enters Gaza will be the wreck of the car military chief Jaabari was travelling in on November 14 when it was hit by a missile. The twisted pile of metal was carefully set up by Hamas workers to commemorate his death.
Meshaal ran Hamas from exile in Damascus from 2004 until January this year when he quit the Syrian capital because of Iranian-backed President Bashar al-Assad's war against Sunni Muslim rebels. He now divides his time between Qatar and Cairo.
His abrupt departure from Syria initially weakened his position within Hamas: ties with Damascus and Tehran had made him important, but with those links damaged or broken, rivals based within Gaza had started to assert their authority.
However, the exiled leader regained the initiative in the November war, working closely with Egypt to secure the truce.
Despite his pledges to stand down this year, many Gazans doubt he will actually leave his post. It has not been made clear whether his visit will mark the end of a secretive leadership election ongoing for six months. (Writing by Crispian Balmer; Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul in Qatar; Editing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher)